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Conscience Magazine

How Good Catholics Fought the Vatican

By Fred T. Sai January 26, 2015

Patricia Miller's Good CatholicsChapter seven in Patricia Miller’s Good Catholics covers the “Showdown in Cairo,” which happened when the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) opened in 1994 with representatives from 179 countries as well as 1,300 NGOs from 133 countries. For the first time at a UN conference, all relevant NGOs who wanted to attend had been registered as full, non-voting participants. And NGO participation made a major difference to the outcome.

The NGO community had learned some painful lessons from the 1984 Conference on Population in Mexico City and the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. In both these conferences and at Cairo, Catholics for Free Choice worked strategically to educate NGOs and the media about the Vatican’s attempts to remove or water down references to women’s equality and sexual and reproductive health.

By 1994, the Vatican had allied itself with extremist Islamic groups in opposing all references to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), which they conflated with extramarital sexual relations, adolescent sexual freedom, destruction of the traditional family and access to abortion. At Cairo, the NGOs, as well as the majority of other attendees, were very angry about the Vatican’s continued opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially the statement Pope John Paul II had made to UNFPA Executive Director Nafis Sadik to the effect that “women caused men to sin.” The Vatican had also tried to use its diplomats to canvass the whole world to unite against the Cairo document, alleging that it had no ethical basis. But CFC’s  prochoice Catholic perspective challenged the Vatican’s authority and ultimately helped break decades of gridlock on population and development. In the end, the Vatican realized it had overplayed its hand and finally signed the document with just a reservation on the section related to modern forms of contraception.

In Cairo, the world’s nations created a groundbreaking plan to ensure holistic people-oriented development, including access to family planning and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. More than that, the Cairo programme of action recognized that women’s equal status in society should be central to all development activities.

In 2014 a new 20-year Programme of Action was released with goals related to the improvement in women’s rights, particularly their needs for reproductive and sexual healthcare, the health of children and the full participation of youth in all development. These were similar to the values reflected in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000. Unfortunately, universal access to reproductive health was excluded from the MDGs, which led to a decrease in attention to family planning. The error was corrected a few years later when universal access to reproductive health was made a target under goal 5, improving maternal health.

The continuation of the Cairo Programme of Action in the MDGs has helped promote great changes in the status of women; in maternal, infant and child health; and in the attention paid to youth in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, the poorer and less developed countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, have seen less progress. It is to be hoped that they will do better with the post-2015 Development Agenda with which the UN will try to accelerate progress on the MDGs. Cairo proved that NGOs could have a real impact in moving forward on reproductive health, and since then, many of the improvements in women’s rights can also be traced to the impetus of NGOs carrying the momentum from Cairo to national level involvement.

Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church
Patricia Miller
(University of California Press, 2014, 344 pp)
9780520276000, $34.95

Fred T. Sai
Fred T. Sai

is a Ghanaian family health physician, a former Professor of Community Health, and a sexual and reproductive health advocate. He chaired the Main Committees of both the Population Conference in Mexico and the ICPD in Cairo.

Tagged Abortion